Hope Over Experience

May 1, 2007 Topic: Nuclear Proliferation Regions: Asia Tags: Six-party Talks

Hope Over Experience

Mini Teaser: Mitchell Reiss’ analysis of the six-party talks’ potential to bolster American and northeast Asian security are pertinent amidst reports of some progress with

by Author(s): Mitchell B. Reiss

IS THE North Korea agreement reached on February 13 of this year a bad deal? Let us recall that the State Department called this deal "only a first step", and that sounds about right. Obviously, much depends on whether North Korea will honor its part of the agreement. We've been down this road before with the Agreed Framework. Samuel Johnson's remark about second marriages comes to mind. He called them "a triumph of hope over experience." So we can be hopeful, but we should also be extremely cautious based on our previous experience with North Korea. Sometimes second marriages work out; sometimes they don't.

At this point, we still cannot be certain of North Korea's intentions. Is North Korea ready to abandon its nuclear-weapons program, return to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and permit intrusive international inspections? Does Kim Jong-il believe he stands a better chance of sustaining himself in power if he abandons nuclear weapons, receives external economic assistance and starts to integrate his country into the broader regional economy? Pyongyang has still not answered these questions.

From the American perspective, the deal's potential strengths are twofold. First, it could suspend North Korea's ability to separate more plutonium for its nuclear weapons program. Second, it could provide a diplomatic framework for turning that suspension into a permanent elimination of the North's program.

Former Clinton Administration officials have said that we could have had this deal four years ago, before the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) separated additional plutonium and tested a nuclear device. It isn't criticism; it's political commentary. Even if it's true, it is completely beside the point. We are where we are and have to figure out how best to proceed.

With regards to the current deal, there are three broad categories of criticisms. Interestingly, two of the three are found inside the Bush Administration.

It is no secret that some administration officials have opposed engaging North Korea. They are roughly divided into two camps: those who oppose engagement on ideological grounds and those who oppose it on more pragmatic grounds.

The ideological argument is that talking with Pyongyang would legitimize a fundamentally illegitimate regime, one led by "evildoers", in the president's memorable phrase. The pragmatic argument against engagement is that negotiations are a fool's errand, as the North has proven time and again that it will renege on any deal.

Both camps also argue that engagement weakens the resolve of the other members of the six-party talks to impose tough sanctions and only serves to perpetuate Kim Jong-il's regime. And both make the logically unassailable point that Washington only adopted greater negotiating flexibility after the DPRK tested a nuclear device on October 9, 2006. In essence, they maintain that this deal represents our "rewarding" Pyongyang's bad behavior. And the risk is that Pyongyang may now believe that further bad behavior will again be rewarded with further concessions at the negotiating table. Some of these points have much merit.

The third category of criticism is really "inside baseball" and arises from parsing the joint statement itself. A close reading raises some questions that will need answering as the parties move forward.

In Section II(1), North Korea pledges to shut down and seal the Yongbyon nuclear facilities and allow International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors to monitor and verify this step "as agreed between IAEA and the DPRK." So, one question is whether the shutting down and sealing of Yongbyon will be performed during the first sixty days, what the joint statement calls the "initial phase", or whether it will depend on when North Korea and the IAEA reach agreement, which could be very much longer.

The same question over timing arises in the next paragraph, where North Korea says it will "discuss" a list of all its nuclear programs within this initial phase. Again, this discussion may go on for a very long time. Language elsewhere in the joint statement stipulates that these and other actions "will be implemented within the next 60 days", so I think we should be prepared for Pyongyang to argue that it is meeting its obligations if it enters into discussions rather than having these discussions result in an agreement at the end of sixty days.

As many people have noted, the joint statement contains no explicit mention of uranium enrichment. To be sure, there are references to "all nuclear programs" and "nuclear facilities", which presumably means that a complete listing would capture any uranium-enrichment capability. But the North Koreans have repeatedly denied that they have a uranium-enrichment program or facilities. I would feel more comfortable if there was explicit reference to "all nuclear technologies" or "all nuclear-related technologies" to make extra certain that the uranium-enrichment technology we know North Korea has imported is covered by the "denuclearization" and "disablement" language.

It's possible the negotiating record, which has not been made public, clarifies these points, but U.S. officials need to make clear our expectations that North Korea will not be allowed to keep any nuclear facilities, technologies or materials under any circumstances.

The joint statement also establishes working groups to hammer out the details of implementing the deal. The idea of working groups is excellent and one I advocated when I was in the administration. But I had in mind no more than one or two, because five working groups will present additional challenges for both North Korea and the United States.

We should expect North Korea to use the working groups to revisit settled issues, resist compromises and push for additional concessions; discussions on denuclearization will be especially tough going. As we all know, the devil is in the details. Let me cite just one example: How do we handle North Korea's nuclear devices? The IAEA is not going to be allowed to verify or take possession of any nuclear devices. And we don't want any South Korean or Japanese officials to have this responsibility or, indeed, officials from any non-nuclear weapons state. So we will have to work out how to do this with the Chinese, Russians and, of course, the North Koreans. Assuming we even get that far, that promises to be a very interesting conversation.

We should also expect the working groups to encounter procedural difficulties. Based on my experience negotiating with the North Koreans, it is clear they do not have a very deep diplomatic bench. In other words, they have a limited number of competent and trusted officials, and most of them are "stove-piped" into their respective ministries. Consequently, there is a significant risk that five active working groups would overwhelm their system. So what I envision is that North Korea will not agree to these groups meeting simultaneously, as some U.S. officials might expect, but rather seriatim.

The challenge for the Bush Administration is rather different. Up until this point, Ambassador Christopher Hill has been able to operate virtually independent of the bureaucracy, both in Berlin and Beijing. The issues raised in the working groups will have to be farmed out to an interagency process, allowing internal critics of this more robust engagement an opportunity to raise objections and try to derail subsequent negotiations. Managing the internal squabbling and forging coherent administration positions will test Ambassador Hill's formidable bureaucratic skills.

In addition, at some point in each of these working groups an impasse will be reached. At that time, the United States should expect that one or more of the other parties will pressure the United States to make additional concessions to appease North Korea. We saw this dynamic in the 1993-94 negotiations leading to the Agreed Framework. The six-party format now institutionalizes the opportunity for this lobbying on Pyongyang's behalf. This is not an insuperable problem-one can always hold firm-but it is one that U.S. negotiators need to anticipate and counter.

There are other concerns. As always, we need to be mindful of how our diplomacy towards the North affects our alliances in the region, especially with Japan and South Korea.

I understand we did not give Tokyo much advance warning of the negotiations in Berlin, which was regrettable. Also, the joint statement does not mention North Korea's ballistic missiles, which have been a particular concern for the Japanese, dating back to the North's 1998 flight test over Honshu. Of equal if not greater concern for many Japanese is the issue of their fellow citizens abducted by North Korea. Given sensitivities in Japan over the abductions, the United States has always maintained that this issue and the nuclear issue had to be resolved at the same time.

After the February 13 joint statement, Japan stated that it will not participate in providing any economic or energy assistance to the North until the abduction issue is resolved. But Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has long championed the abduction issue, has subsequently been whipsawed between conservative elements and family members of the abductees, who insist on this hard-line stance, while others are concerned that Tokyo is losing an opportunity to influence the talks and help shape the future of northeast Asia.

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